Into Africa, A Scientist’s Journey

Monday, April 14, 2014

“Chui”was the word on the radio; Swahili for leopard. The Masai are still the best wildlife spotters on the Mara, but they are not averse to using modern technology when it suits them. The report was from another guide letting us know about a leopard feasting on a buffalo carcass near a well-known creek. This was good fortune for the feline, nothing more. A leopard can't take down a buffalo—not even a young one. By the time we arrived he was just finishing his lunch, leaving the rest for the vultures. He took refuge from the Kenyan sun in the shade of a leafy shrub, yawned a big kitty yawn, and stretched out for an afternoon nap, momentarily tamed by the soporific sway of a full belly.

—A Scientist’s Journey to the Classroom and the Savannah—
by Mark Miesch

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Mark with Nigerian student Oluwadare T. Seun
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School Directors with the Vice Chancelor (left)
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Deborah Scherrer of Stanford University organized a one-day teacher workshop

I had come to Africa to share the wonders of solar magnetism with a group of 39 bright and eager students from Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Malawi, and Nigeria. The occasion was one of a series of advanced schools on space science sponsored by the International Space Weather Initiative (ISWI) and the Scientific Committee on Solar Terrestrial Physics (SCOSTEP). This one was held in Nairobi in October 2013, hosted by the Technical University of Kenya (TUK). I was one of 17 international lecturers on a range of topics, including the solar interior, the solar dynamo (my contribution), the solar atmosphere, coronal mass ejections, solar flares, the solar wind, solar energetic particles, cosmic rays, the Earth's magnetosphere and ionosphere, space weather, atmospheric physics, and the influence of the Sun on climate. There were also lectures and a hands-on workshop on instrumentation and data analysis techniques for space physics research.

The school was organized by Nat Gopalswamy (NASA GSFC/SCOSTEP) and Paul Baki (TUK), with local help from Andrew Oduor (Maseno University) and Harrison Amwayi (TUK). The goals were to promote space science research and education in Africa and to provide opportunities for the students and their mentors to participate in hosting ground-based instruments such as solar telescopes, GPS receivers, magnetometers, and ionospheric monitors, each as components of larger networks. Students were selected based on academic merit, research interests, and research experience. It was a lively and diverse crew! Each lecture was accompanied by a hands-on activity that fostered interactions between the students and lecturers. We all lived and dined together buffet-style in the education complex that served as a conference center, and we shared our triumphs and tribulations on such erudite matters as the water temperature and pressure (or lack thereof) in the morning's shower.

To complement the school, which was targeted at graduate students, Deborah Scherrer of Stanford University organized a one-day teacher workshop at the University of Nairobi, about 5 miles from the ISWI/SCOSTEP school. I was fortunate to participate in that as well. The idea was to teach teachers, and we expected to find a group of practicing elementary school teachers who were interested in incorporating solar science and space weather into their curriculum. What we found instead were mainly undergraduate astronomy and physics students from the University of Nairobi! Still, it was very well received. After an introductory address by Nat and Paul, I gave a presentation on solar science and space weather. Then the fun really began! Deborah had a full agenda of hands-on activities, from building a cardboard spectrograph (a student favorite) to active demonstrations of lunar phases and magnetism, to training on the use of Sudden Ionospheric Disturbance (SID) monitors, which were given to the participants for use in their classrooms.

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Cape Buffalo

Before returning home to Boulder I took the opportunity to go on a five-day safari in the Masai Mara game reserve, one of the world’s greatest wildlife refuges, in the southwest corner of Kenya, across the border from Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Relative to some African countries, Kenya does an outstanding job of keeping poaching under control, so the density of wildlife is incredible.

I have lived in Colorado for nearly 20 years and I have never seen a mountain lion in the wild. In the Mara I went on seven game drives (morning and evening each day) and saw lions every time, along with a stunning abundance and variety of other fauna that reads like a who's who of African animals or a guest list for Noah's ark: elephants, giraffes, ostriches, impalas, wildebeests, hartebeests, topis, zebras, leopards, cheetahs, servals, Thompson's gazelles, warthogs, hyenas, hippos, crocodiles, mongooses, hornbills, baboons, vervet monkeys, bush babies, African swallows (a must for every Monty Python fan!), storks, eagles, guinea fowl, a secretary bird, termites, dik dik, waterbuck, bush duiker...the list goes on..

To my host's surprise, I rounded out the complete list of Mara cats by spotting a wild cat and a caracal, known as the ghost of the savannah. We saw lions sleeping, hunting, feeding, and even mating (complete with a satisfied roar that stirs the depths of your soul unlike any other sound on Earth). We saw a pack of hyenas vying for a zebra carcass with a flock of impatient vultures. We saw one of the famous wildebeest migration river crossings spanning the croc-infested Mara River, though it was the wrong time of the year to witness the migration itself. Many employees of the bush camp, including our guides, were Masai tribesmen, and they took us to their village one afternoon. A woman and child kindly let a few of us into their home, a small thatched hut with a warm, dark, cozy interior filled with the scented smoke of the central fire. The child was calm but eyed us suspiciously.

One of the lasting rewards of such a trip is the new friends you make along the way and the unexpected paths where those new connections can lead. Soon after returning from my trip I was contacted by email by a PhD student in the physics department of Addis Ababa University (AAU) in Ethiopia. His name was Kinfe Teweldebirhan. Although Kinfe had not attend the ISWI/SCOSTEP school, many of his friends and colleagues had, and it was through them that he obtained my contact information. Kinfe is an exceptional student with a passion for astrophysics and space science, but due to circumstances beyond his control, he recently found himself without a PhD advisor. Faced with the possibility of giving up his passion for other areas of physics that are better represented among the AAU faculty, he was reaching out for a new advisor. After several email exchanges with Kinfe and those who know him, I agreed to serve as an external advisor, in collaboration with a local advisor at AAU. Promoting expertise in astrophysics and space science in Ethiopia through education has become particularly pressing in recent years with the opening of the new Entoto Observatory, Ethiopia's first, located in the highlands north of the capital, Addis Ababa. Studying the origins and manifestations of solar variability is not only of practical relevance to our technological society, but it is also a link to the cosmos, with 100 billion other stars in our galaxy alone waiting to be explored.

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Kinfe Teweldebirhan visiting HAO in Boulder, CO

With generous support from the HAO visitor's program, Kinfe is now visiting Boulder (April–May 2014) and we are beginning to shape a research direction for his PhD thesis. Several of us at HAO, including myself and Mausumi Dikpati, have recently developed a novel 3D Babcock-Leighton dynamo model of the solar cycle. Kinfe will help us improve the theoretical foundations of the model and make closer contact with solar observations through calibration and data assimilation. This model forms the dynamo core of the broader Space Climate Initiative (SCI), which seeks to investigate the causes and extremes of long-term solar variability and its influence on the Earth's climate system and space environment. Kinfe is enjoying the intellectual stimulation of NCAR and is reveling in the adventure of the entire experience. This is his first trip out of Ethiopia, and last week marked the first time he had ever seen snow. He also had his own memorable wildlife encounter: he had never before seen a squirrel. The world never ceases to amaze.

Editor’s note: If you buy Mark a beer sometime he’ll tell you even more; so while this article is longer than what we usually publish on the web, I think it is worth a five-minute break to settle in and imagine this amazing experience.